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I thought the man was sleeping until I saw his dead stare. The top of his head was gone, leaving a hole ringed by wisps of black hair. He was across the path I walked to my office in Saddam’s palace.
I was a lieutenant colonel supervising a team of civil affairs soldiers building democracy and infrastructure in Baghdad. In two weeks-October 10, 2004-my Army Reserve unit was going home after a year in Iraq.
Eleven months before, I saw my first body in a dump. Garbage was everywhere in Baghdad and the 1st Armored Division was using an abandoned mining pit to clean up the mess. Three trash trucks side-by-side dumped their loads over the edge. Then three would replace them. The line of trucks stretched over a mile.
From the dump manager’s office, I thought I saw a body take a nose-dive from a truck into the pit. I didn’t believe it until I went outside and looked and saw the contrast of the man’s red shirt with the trash. Three more trucks with fresh loads were backing up to the edge.
“Hey!” I told the Iraqi manager. He was all wrinkles and chain smoking unfiltered Iraqi cigarettes. “There’s a body down there. Stop the trucks.” I pointed into the pit. He glanced quickly at the trucks, then back at me. He never looked at the body.
“Yes, Colonel, these things happen,” he said in the manner one might describe a plugged toilet. “I am sorry. Please, please sit.” His open hands pointed to a metal chair. His tone was conciliatory, suggesting the body would no longer trouble me if I sat.
He talked of “this body and the other things in the pit”–animals, artillery rounds and “possibly” those chemical weapons we could never find. “It’s a bad thing to dig down there,” he said, his expression a mix of sympathy and what the fuck do you want me to do about it.
Most Iraqis kissed my ass because of my rank, but that did not mean compliance or agreement. Its purpose was to solicit something of value, usually money; or to get rid of me until the next time my ass needed kissed. I assessed the manager’s purpose as the latter.
“You have to do something. That’s a man in the trash.” I repeated these words, my voice growing louder and faster, believing what I said was enough.
George H. W. Bush smiled in a photo on the wall. I imagined this manager taking down Saddam’s picture when it looked like the U.S. would win. “Colonel Williams ordered the trucks shall never stop,” he said. Williams was the brigade commander with military control over this area, which meant his authority was slightly less than God’s.
An hour later, whoever was down there was under twenty feet of trash. Then the earthmovers began pushing dirt over everything.
That evening I reported the body to Lieutenant Colonel Owens, Williams’s operations officer. He was a lean Texan with a bulge in his lower lip from a huge wad of dip. He had a harsh stare, but whether it was permanent or just how he looked that night, I could not say. This was the first time we’d spoken. Ten minutes before, a rocket blew through the roof of a dining facility at a small base six miles north and killed at least five brigade soldiers. He was on the radio requesting “three fucking medivac helicopters, now.” A monotone voice was telling him no birds were available.
I stood before his desk. Eventually, he looked up.
He began shaking his head shortly after I began to speak. “Some fuckin’ Iraqi’s under a bunch of trash? Exactly what the hell do you want brigade to do? I got five dead troops. I don’t know how many fuckin injured to deal with.” He spit into a plastic coke bottle close to full with pieces of tobacco floating in a mahogany colored liquid, then he stared like he was daring me to say something.
I walked out. Nobody was going to dig through all that garbage for one dead Iraqi.
The dead man on the path was a kid of about twenty. There was a razor nick on his neck where his hand slipped trimming his patchy beard. It was summer and the flies were everywhere, but the ones in the nearby dumpster hadn’t gotten to him yet. Hundreds were working on a collection of Corona beer bottles, pizza and cans of Fritos cheddar cheese dip.
He wore one sandal made from a used tire. The other lay tread up five feet away in the dirt.
Rex Edwards stepped over the body and added a bag of empty Corona bottles to the ones in the dumpster. Rex lived in the trailer next to mine. He was British special ops, a major in the SAS, and partial to Mexican beer. He drank a ton of it but never seemed to gain weight.
“Gonna be another hot one,” he said. Then he coughed and hocked something up and launched it into the dumpster. The flies scattered when it hit, then returned to scavenging.
It was only 6:00 a.m. and already 95 degrees.
Rex was homely but acted as if he was good looking. I would catch him checking his reflection in windows and then smiling. And he was always amused. It took me a month to decipher his guttural east side London accent. Before that, I just nodded and said “yeah.”
He lit a cigarette, looked at the ground and laughed.
“Looks like you’ve met Austin.” He kicked a leg and a little cloud of dust flew up. “Little fucker’s gonna be ripe soon.”
“Austin? This guy’s Austin?” No Iraqi was named that.
“Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery,” Rex said. He paused, I think waiting for a spark of understanding on my face. He never got it so he continued. “Nobody knows who the fuck this mystery man is. I tripped on him a few hours ago. One of your Iraqi allies bit it, Mark.”
I drank with Rex and his SAS buddies. Our compound, “Embassy Estates,” housed American and British special ops, most of whom thought my civil affairs mission-“to win the hearts and minds”-was “pansy ass bullshit.” They wouldn’t have anything to do with me.
But Rex’s father was a barrister in London. When he heard I was a criminal defense lawyer, he wanted to talk law.
“When I retire I’m going into the law,” he told me. “I want to stand up for the little guy, the working man. God knows I’ve killed enough of them. Time to give back.” He was slurring his words.
“That’s noble, Rex,” I said, laughing. “I can see you in a fucking powdered wig.”
Most days he left the wire to kill somebody. If he carried his short-barreled HK, it happened up close. If he had his sniper rifle, death came from a hundred meters or more. Rex would never get PTSD because he did not dwell on the morality of what he did. Once he got the green light, he went ahead.
He laughed as he poked the body in the chest with his boot. “This is a blow to Iraqi-American friendship, Mate.”
The kid was dark-skinned and wearing a t-shirt with American and Iraqi flags and a caption that read “Iraqi-American Friendship.” It was new and white. Pale stenciled hands-one out of each flag-shook in the center of his chest.
Probably a gift from an American. No Iraqi bought such a stupid shirt.
I had boxes of those shirts. Once I had the job of paying reparations to a merchant after two Apache helicopters blew up his home. They hit the wrong house, killing the guy’s wife. I was to say “sorry” and hand him $3500.
My boss was a Colonel in his late fifties who spent his time at a desk counting down the days until he could go home. When I asked, “What the fuck am I supposed to say to this guy?” He said, “Pay him, say we’re sorry, and….” He was looking at the boxes of shirts. “Take some of those shirts along.”
Rex bent down, admiring the wound. “Clean. Austin got a haircut.”
“Probably those mortars that hit around midnight,” but Rex’s expression said he had been sleeping. Six hours earlier Sergeant Paul Colvin and I were smoking Dunhills outside our trailer. Paul was a successful general contractor in Los Angeles before our unit was called up. He was tall and lanky with friendly good looks and a personality that could sell anything to anybody. Paul was my best friend.
He poured a bucket of water on the cement to take advantage of evaporative cooling. We were snoking Dunhills and watching the cement dry when the mortars hit, 1-2-3, a three second break between launches long enough for another round to be thrown into the tube. Two of the impacts weren’t close but the third, the one that probably took out Austin, rocked our trailer.
I had no feelings for Austin.
I quit making friends with Iraqis. They were always getting killed.
Once I had. Several Baghdad City Council members were my friends. I was their American advisor. We drank tea, traded smokes, and shared family photographs.
They were mesmerized by my seven-year-old daughter Erica’s long auburn red hair. None of their wives or daughters had hair that color. I was so proud of her.
“So beautiful,” they said, passing her photograph, “Oohs” and “Aahs” escaping their lips. Their reactions were naïve and refreshing. I was committed to helping them.
Then a seat at a council meeting was empty and I learned one of my friends was murdered. Mazin Al Bakr was chopped up, his limbs strung up on a traffic pole. Just the day before he told me a story about his wife and daughters.
It was a warning: “Do not help the Americans!” I was the American Mazin helped.
It kept happening.
Insurgents hung another of my friends off the side of a building. Four were ambushed in their cars or homes. One woman named Ilham, a council member from Abu Ghreib, was kidnapped; and, when her family couldn’t pay the ransom, buried alive.
The day before she vanished she asked for money for a “women’s empowerment center” For her village near Abu Ghreib. She picked the wrong day to ask. I almost died two hours earlier when a rocket-propelled grenade barely missed my Humvee. I got lucky. I can still hear the freight train sound of the warhead.
I told Ilham how stupid it would be to build a “women’s empowerment center” in a village that had no drinkable water, no sewage system but did have a ton of insurgents who would love to blow it up.
She teared up and walked away. I remember her bright pink headscarf walking out of the council chambers. I never saw her after that.
For every American whose death made the front page a hundred Iraqis died and no one cared. Our fight was against an insurgency with so many factions it was hard to know who to kill. Decent people got caught in the middle.
“At least they can’t blame Austin on us,” I said.
Anything that went wrong in Baghdad was our fault.
Two months into my tour the U.S. opened a sixty-million dollar plant to bring clean water to three hundred thousand Iraqis in Kadhimya, a district on the north side of Baghdad. I was inside the walls of the facility, smoking a cigarette, waiting for the ribbon cutting ceremony to begin. A huge crowd of Iraqis waited to attend outside the entrance gate.
Then I heard yelling and shots from automatic weapons and tires screeching. Through the gate, I saw the car plow into the crowd, knocking people down and driving over them. The car exploded in a hundred foot puffy flame that spread in all directions. Then a hundredth of a second passed and the blast hit, monstrous, deafening, extinguishing my cigarette and slamming me into a wall.
Thirty-four people were killed, most of them kids who didn’t have anything better to do. Hundreds were injured. I was the length of a football field from the blast and dazed but unhurt.
Baghdad newspapers blamed the U.S. for the deaths. We lured those kids by giving out candy.
I moved closer to the devastation and wish I hadn’t. In the fire and smoke, I saw the bottom half of a little girl. She’d been standing behind a concrete barrier and the half of her above the concrete took the blast. That part was gone. Her skirt was yellow; the color of sunflowers, so fresh and clean it stood out. I threw up when I saw her legs on the asphalt. They were the same size as my daughter’s.
I called Erica every day after that. In my mind, I saw her being killed and I had to hear her voice so I would know it was only the nightmares talking. It took a month but I finally deep sixed that vision of a sunflower yellow skirt into a box in my head.
The tan paint on Austin’s hands said he worked at the paint shop. It was a five-minute walk from where he lie.
Three months into my tour, I picked up two Humvees from the shop. A dozen Iraqis wearing sandals like Austin’s were using paint sprayers. Tan lead based paint floated thick in the light coming through holes in the ceiling.
The painting company was Iraqi but an American ran it, part of KBR’s thirty-seven billion dollars in profits. KBR contracted for jobs with the U.S. government, then subcontracted local companies to do the work. The locals hired out-of-work Iraqis. They were easy to find; thirty percent of the adult male population was unemployed. They got paid a few bucks a day.
The manager was a paunchy American in his late sixties with dry wrinkles from decades in the sun. His long hair was half blonde, half gray and tied in a ponytail. A lot of the KBR employees were burnouts, Americans who couldn’t get work at home and came to Iraq for the huge tax-free salaries. This guy seemed like one of them. His air-conditioned office had a thick glass window that looked over the workplace. I saw an expensive breathing mask hanging on his wall.
“You don’t give those Iraqis masks?” I asked. “They’re breathing that shit.”
“That’s how they do it here,” he said. “Not my company.”
Austin would not be showing up for work.
“We need to get him out of here,” I said to Rex, looking at our side-by-side trailers forty feet away. “He’s going to smell. Soon. I’ll let them know at the gate.” I stepped over Austin and turned right on the small road between the dumpster and several large power generators. Then I walked to the gate at the entrance to the palace.
“There’s a body by the generators,” I said to the Sri Lankan guard. Next I talked with a captain at the military police station, drawing a map. Underneath a big “X,” I wrote the words “dead body.”
Then I called the American at the paint shop.
“He may work here, Colonel.I don’t know.” I heard him light a cigarette, then cough.
“You don’t know if he works in your shop?” I said. “Or if someone didn’t show up today? This guy has family, you know.”
After I said “family,” he stammered, as if that surprised him. He coughed again.
“You know how it is with Iraqis. They come and go,” he said. “These people have a different work ethic than us. In sha Allah and all that bullshit. I’ll leave a note for the foreman but I wouldn’t hold your breath somebody will claim this haji.”
I didn’t expect to see Austin again. This was not, I reasoned, some body in a trash pit. He was in a military housing area. Someone always came and took bodies away.
But after work I found him propped against the dumpster wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap. He no longer blocked the path. An open paperback was on his lap, his right hand over the pages to keep it from closing.
A small red plastic flag on a thin wire was shoved in the ground by his foot.
Austin looked like a man enjoying a good book in the shade. The only tipoff something was wrong was his eyes, which were open. He didn’t flinch when flies walked on them.
“That’s fucked up,” I said to Paul. I was thankful for the hat, though. Without it, the flies would have moved to the big scoop out of his head.
“It’s total bullshit, I know,” Paul said.
Paul and I reported Austin to the brigade headquarters and the housing office. Then we walked to the Mortuary Affairs unit. The place smelled like chemicals.
“We got enough going on, sir, without hunting up bodies,” said a sergeant in white scrubs at a desk palying solitaire on the computer at his desk.
“You won’t have to hunt him up. I can draw you a map.”
“Sir, we don’t process Iraqis.”
He turned his face to the computer screen. Before I could get irritated, four body bags came in from the hospital. Two soldiers, also in scrubs, came out a pair of swinging doors pushing gurneys. Each grabbed one end of a bag and hefted it onto a gurney. They did the same with another bag. Then they pushed the gurneys out of the room, leaving two bags on the floor. The sergeant looked up from his game.
“You know, sir, you could bury him. I know a unit in Taji that did that when they couldn’t get rid of a body.” I imagined Paul and I digging a hole next to our trailer and shoving Austin in, then looked to see if he was being sarcastic.
“Grounds too hard,” I said.
“That dumbass was actually serious about us burying him,” Paul said after we walked out.
The consensus among the Americans was Iraqis should take the body. No one, however, knew who those Iraqis were.
“Are we the only two who give a shit there’s a body in the housing area,” Paul said.
At the Iraqi police station on the base, a supervisor nodded and smiled when he saw my rank. I told him our plight and he was polite and cordial, offering tea. He had a Saddam style mustache that extended halfway down his lower lip.
“Colonel, that man will be gone at first light.” He spoke with a flourish, as if Austin was some irritating panhandler he would chase off. I left with the same feeling I always had after talking with the Iraqi Police. They promised everything, delivered nothing and blamed it on God.
At Embassy Estates, residents treated Austin much as they would a dead cat in the gutter. Nobody got close to him, but no one seemed to give a shit he was there, either. Rex’s trailer mate dumped a grocery bag in the dumpster then walked back to their trailer to crack a beer. A man and woman ten feet from Austin laughed and smoked.
I did not see Austin again until the next evening.
I still believed somebody would take him away. Somebody always came for the bodies.
But he was still against the dumpster, now wearing a sombrero, the type sold in tacky souvenir shops. It had elaborate gold stitching and shiny beads. His hand clutched an empty tequila bottle. A cardboard sign on his lap read, Wake me when the war is over.
“This is fuckin’ out of control,” I said, shaking my head, trying to get mad. There was a time I would have. But I had been in country eleven months. The harder I tried the funnier it got.
“I see why that unit in Taji buried that body,” Paul said, and we started laughing.
“What the fuck is funny?” I said. We laughed to the point we couldn’t breath.
“Cause it is… fuckin funny,” he said when he could.
Austin’s legs were swelled and stretching the fabric of his pants. He looked as if he had a sandbag stuffed under his “Iraqi-American Friendship” t-shirt. He didn’t smell, but that was coming.
“Look at the poor little haji,” Rex said, walking up. He was eating a microwave burrito and drinking a Corona. “Passed out next to the trash.”
“You did that shit,” I said to him.
“Me?” he said, eyes wide. “I wouldn’t do that.” Then he leaned down and put his Corona in Austin’s empty hand.
“Nothin’ like a cold beer to chase the tequila, Mate.” Rex walked off, laughing.
The next morning Austin was gone. The little red flag was still stuck in the ground.
I told the story of how I got Austin taken away-my victory over bureaucracy––to anyone who would listen. “You just have to hang in there. Never give up. Never!” I said in my best imitation of Winston Churchill.
Later that night I walked to the dumpster carrying a bag of trash. The metal top was closed. When I opened it, the horrible sick sweet smell of decomposition hit. Austin was covered in flies, lying on Corona bottles and pizza boxes. His tire tread shoes were stacked by his head.
Rex walked up. “You ought to be thanking me. You were running around trying to get somebody to take him.”
“I wasn’t planning on him ending up in a fuckin’ dumpster,” I said. “What happens on trash day?”
“That’s Friday, three days from now,” he said. “Until then, we need to keep that shut.” He walked to the far side of the dumpster, grabbed the metal lid and closed it with a “bang.”
I could not think of anything to say.
“Mark, look,” Rex said. He put his hand on my shoulder like a father would to a son. “You took the civilized route. You told everyone. Nobody came. Nobody gives a shit. All they did was put some little fuckin’ flag in the dirt, as if you’d miss him if it wasn’t there.” He pulled the red flag out of the ground and opened the lid a crack, then threw it on Austin’s chest. The flies parted, and then reassembled. “You got a better idea?”
I didn’t. This was Iraq. You did things you once thought you could never do because you had no other option.
“I’m putting up signs for when they come get him,” I said.
I made four signs that said “Dead Body in Here.” Rex and Paul watched me tape them to the sides of the dumpster.
“That’s how I want to be laid to rest,” Rex said. “On a bed of Corona bottles.”
“Now let’s shut this goddamned dumpster,” I said. “Smells like somebody died in there.”
The next day I passed the dumpster at noon and didn’t notice the lid open.
Then I did. Oh shit. My signs still alerted the world to the presence of a dead body, but the dumpster was empty.
The gate guards said the trash trucks came two days early because Friday was Islamic New Year. This, too, was Iraq. Things happened late unless you wanted them to. Then they happened early.
I did not call the dump to tell them a body was on its way. Ten days later, I flew home.
Just before Thanksgiving 2004, Erica’s class gave me a “welcome home” party. I talked about what I did in Baghdad and showed them slides of my friends on the Baghdad City Council. Then I gave out thirty Iraqi-American Friendship t-shirts.
Paul and I talk every few months. I stayed in touch with Rex Edwards for a few years. I don’t think he ever became a lawyer.
I kept Ilham’s photo in my wallet for a long time. After thirteen years, I still get nauseated when I see a girl wearing a sunflower yellow dress. I suppose I have mild PTSD, but it’s nothing I ever thought to get treated. I just look away and think of something nice until the feeling goes away.
M.E. Johnson is a California Superior Court Judge and a recent graduate of an MFA program. He presided over the Riverside County Veterans Court for five years, where he saw firsthand the pain of combat veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues. He is a retired colonel of the United States Army and an Iraq War veteran.